ESPN reported Thursday morning that certain Group of Five officials are considering breaking away and forming a separate playoff from the Power Five conferences, feeling that it would be more effective for their respective programs. Sean Frazier, the athletic director for Northern Illinois, was quoted in support of such a move and even gave a framework and has been active in advocating for it in other media, while Mike Aresco, the commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, voiced fierce opposition to the move.
The Playoff, which is hosted by ESPN in coordination with the NCAA, has festered in controversy from the beginning, with talks of expansion reaching a head after this year’s Four Teams In were announced. Ohio State was chosen despite not winning its conference (or even playing in the championship game) over a Penn State squad that both beat them and won the Big Ten, while some argued Washington was not deserving of a spot due to a weak out-of-conference schedule and a loss to USC, who ended the year on the outside looking in.
On the G5 side, Western Michigan was locked out of the Playoff despite finishing undefeated and a conference champion, instead getting a Cotton Bowl berth in Arlington against Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin for a New Year’s Six bowl. Houston was in the conversation for a Playoff or NY6 berth until shocking losses to Navy and SMU unraveled its season.
What would a potential G5 playoff look like and what would it mean for those programs going down the road? Cyrus Smith, staff editor at Underdog Dynasty, Jeremy Mauss, manager of Mountain West Connection and James H. Jimenez, assistant manager of Hustle Belt, discuss:
So, first things first, what was your initial reaction to the idea of a G5 Playoff?
James: The first thing I said was “why?” The second thing I said was “there’s something more to this that isn’t being said.”
The consensus over at HB is that inevitably, the Power Five will totally separate from the Group of Five and leave them out in the cold. That, we agree on. We’re rather split, however, on whether or not this would be a good thing for programs like the ones we cover. I happened to think it’s a bad thing.
Maybe pushing out this narrative of “G5s want their own Playoff!” and generating that talk could fool G5s into doing what the P5s wish they could do. It’s a classic propaganda move. It all depends on what happens with the Big 12 in 2025, which is when the conference’s rights contract is up and could very well result in a dissolve and complete shakeup at both the P5 and G5 levels.
I realize this makes me sound very tin-hatty, but it’s a legitimate fear. I’ll hit more on it later, but that’s my initial reaction, at least.
Cyrus: My first reaction was that this would be a colossal mistake if the G5 schools wanted to put pressure on the P5 and create their own playoff as a result of being left out of the with an undefeated school this year. The fact it came from ESPN made me instantly feel like this was a ploy to create a schism between the P5 and G5. I think TV dollars are what’s putting pressure on the P5 to break away from the G5 and what’s allowing that to happen is the NCAA. G5 needs the P5 and vice-versa.
For an example, Arkansas State has generated a ton of money recently for their athletic department with the use of “money games” with the P5. A move to an all G5 Playoff would effectively eliminate any reason for P5 schools to play G5 schools as they are already transitioning from playing FCS schools due to the stigma of being well, an FCS school. P5 schools need home games to accommodate their fan bases and in some cases such as LSU, are a huge source of income for their respective cities that wouldn’t be there since P5 schools are preferring to play neutral field games more often nowadays.
If G5 schools really are seeking inclusion into the playoff their best bet would be to wait until the playoff inevitably expands or wait until the 2025 contract ends. The staff at UDD thinks a G5 Playoff is a bad idea as it would ultimately end up like the FCS Playoffs and I agree.
Jeremy: You remember that episode in the U.S. version of “The Office” where Michael Scott finds out that Toby from HR is back from Costa Rica? Well that is how I felt when I saw that there is a movement for a G5-only playoff. This is not a new idea but it is now one being talked about by important people in college football, and not just your buddies tossing out ideas because they are bored.
I understand the reasoning behind it as it is as a creative way to earn more money, and potentially more eyeballs. In that piece an industry source mentions NBC, CBS and ESPN would be interested in airing these games because at this moment live sports still mean a lot to advertisers and are DVR proof but that might actually not be the case.
While we all know that a Group of Five team getting into the current playoff model is the closest number to zero without actually being at zero. This year, had Houston gone undefeated I would be confident in saying they would still not be in the playoff as their schedule strength per Jeff Sagarin is 75 while Alabama and Clemson were top 10, Clemson 25 and Washington was a bit of an anomaly at 47; yet the Huskies won a power league and compare that to Houston, it would have still been Washington.
What it told me is not necessarily that the Group of Five is giving up, but it shows the frustration in a system that is stacked against them and I guess Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier is in that camp with other AD’s in his shoes. If this were to actually happen -- spoiler: it won’t -- there would be a separate division created and the G5 would basically be what FCS is today.
Many fans of a G5 Playoff argue that because the money gap is already expanding between the P5 and G5 that it would be better to just break away from the P5. Thoughts?
James: Those fans are totally correct. One of our contributors, Keith Schessele, has been for all G5 programs dropping to the FCS, which is a rather extreme argument, but it does make some sense in the context of “well, they don’t want us anyway, so might as well.”
One of my Twitter followers, David Arnold, has also been making the argument that it’s costing more money than ever to keep up with the Joneses. And he’s totally correct. The financial differences between P5 and G5 programs are astronomical.
Alabama, for instance, has 75 (75!) coaches on staff. That’s enough to fill every slot in an NBA game, including both teams, coaching staffs, referees and a full production crew. Most G5 programs barely have 10-20 coaches, in comparison. Look at TV negotiation rights, too. The MAC got $113 million for their contract with ESPN in 2014, which amounts to about $950,000 per member school. The Big Ten just re-upped their contract with Fox/ESPN recently for $2.64 BILLION. Just on TV contract money alone, that’s $31,428,517 per member school. That’s not even taking into consideration ticket sales, sponsorships, branding and merchandising, uniform rights, student fees taken from tuition and other such income streams, such as the College Football Playoff contract.
Cyrus: The disparity in resources between the P5 and G5 is striking but that hasn’t translated to on field/court results. The G5 can compete against the P5. Just looking at the NY6 Bowl the G5 is 2-0. Transitioning to a G5 Playoff would be a submission that they can’t compete which isn’t true.
Now I understand that the arms race in facilities has put G5 schools at a disadvantage and that they simply can’t afford to keep up. But you can say that about a ton of P5 schools (Washington State, Wake Forest, Iowa State, etc.) who face the same obstacles against their P5 brethren. College Football has always been an unfair sport and will always be an unfair sport. Moving to a G5 Playoff isn’t going to change that.
Jeremy: The money would likely be even less if the Group of 5 and Power 5 were to break off. There is a decent amount of money that is spread out from the College Football Playoff and also the extra money to the school and league who earns the golden ticket to a New Year’s Six game.
On the other hand it is costing a lot of schools money to attempt to keep up with the Power Five schools. Facilities do matter in getting kids to the school that might be a bit out of one’s normal recruiting range, but they are not the end all be all as coaches are a big deal in making players great.
Look at Fresno State. They are bringing in Jeff Tedford and for some reason made him the highest paid coach in the Mountain West and that is after firing Tim DeRuyter who was the previous highest paid coach. Oh and Tedford is making more than his predecessor. Fresno State recently upped its student fees to help support the athletics department and per a report from the 2011-12 financial statement on Fresno State athletics, the picture is not pretty as over one-third of athletic funds came from student fees.
Then just look at Fresno State’s future non-conference football schedule which has them playing 13 of 14 Power Five opponents on the road and that is obviously for money purposes.
As for breaking off it would mean even less exposure than what is already handed out to these schools. Plus, a break off would mean less money and could diminish playing Power Five teams with a division split. So, staying with the FBS as we know it is the right move.
What would a G5 Playoff look like? Would it look like an FCS Playoff? Would it incorporate existing bowls? Would it be different?
James: Ideally, I’d love to see existing bowls incorporated because they have their own unique feels to each of them. But I realize that would be almost impossible to execute. I would imagine it looks similar to the FCS playoffs. Conference champions are automatic bids, with a few at-larges to select from. It’s worked that way from FCS to NAIA, so… yeah.
Cyrus: This is going down a rabbit hole I want no part of. The mothership wrote something about how a four-team playoff would look like this year. Four teams wouldn’t be the way to go as the return wouldn’t be there financially for G5 schools.
If the G5 is going to do this thing it needs to look like the FCS playoffs. Unfortunately, I think we would see an end to the bowl format as we know it. I’d prefer a 16-team playoff with automatic bids to the five conference champions and 11 at-large bids.
Jeremy: Do I have to? I think this idea of a G5 playoff is just dumb, but if this somehow actually happened then I’d say go with five automatic bids and three to seven at-large berths. As for bowl games and a second-class citizen playoff, well that would not work as bowl games now have a tough time selling out. Keep these on campus and have a title game at a neutral site.
Would EXPANSIONPALOOZA happen before such a move happened? If so, how does it affect G5 conferences?
James: Yes, yes and yes. Here’s the scenario we see happening at HB: in 2025, the Big 12 dissolves. The Power Five becomes the Power Four and each conference decides to move to 16 teams. There aren’t enough teams in that scenario, so they’ll have to pluck some G5 programs into the fold. We think the American is most affected, which means the American plucks from its peer conferences, setting up a cascade effect. I wouldn’t be surprised if programs such as NDSU, James Madison and Jacksonville State move up from FCS in this scenario.
It would weaken the conferences and blur their national relevance if this were to happen, certainly. FBS is the top tier of college football and G5 football is already trodden-down by national media as-is; this wouldn’t help. It could also force cash-strapped programs to reconsider FBS standing, which could cause even more acrimony.
Cyrus: I think expansion would be the only move to force a G5 Playoff as I just can’t see the G5 willingly opting for such a move. If it were to happen where the Big 12 dissolves, then a 16 team conference is pretty much inevitable and that could mean the end of the current FBS structure.
The G5 would no doubt be diminished to the point where it would force a lot of schools to consider if having a football program at the second tier G5 level would even be worth it, since they are no longer getting the revenue they once were receiving in this current model.
For example, UConn fans already despise the fact that their basketball program is with the likes of Tulane and Tulsa because their football program wanted to remain in the FBS. What happens when FBS is no longer a thing? Does the football program drop down a level since the appeal of competing with the best as well as the money payout is no longer there and go back to the Big East?
These are the things athletic directors are going to have to consider if the next round of expansion occurs.
Jeremy: The ticking time bomb is when the Big 12 grant of rights ends up and the league is not a cohesive group and we all found that out quickly after the league said that it was unanimous that they did not want to expand earlier this year and the next day or so that was not the case, plus we all remember the do’s and don'ts on what to say regarding expanding. I’d place good money on the Big 12 falling apart and there will be four large conferences and two things could happen.
First is that every school in the Big 12 finds a home in a power league and yes that includes deadweight (football) Iowa State, Kansas, post-Bill Snyder Kansas State and sort of Texas Tech. Including Notre Dame, there are 65 teams that fit into the current Power Five distinction. So, four conferences of 16 teams and then stubborn Notre Dame, but having 65 schools in power leagues fumbles the idea that four leagues of 16 teams could have a nice and tight playoff structure with a league title game serving as a de facto quarterfinal leading to a four-team playoff like we have. This also assumes that there is a break off between the current P5 and G5.
Even if there is no break off not sure much would change at the Group of Five level unless there is scenario two where the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC are picky and choose only who they want. That could mean teams being left out in the cold like the ones I mentioned above and that could open up a few spots for the better teams in the current G5 to get the call up, because really, what do the small markets in the Big 12 really bring?
Outside of Texas and a lesser degree of Baylor and TCU, there are no large markets in that league. Oklahoma and Texas will be fine and probably Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU and Kansas because of hoops (but barely). There are a few schools that really should be left out and bring in schools that have had football success like Boise State, South Florida, Houston, SDSU and others in that same category. That is where the real chaos could end up being. I honestly can see the Big Ten sticking their nose up at the thought of having Kansas State or Iowa State in the their league.
Any sort of separate playoff or round of expansion will not happen until we get much closer to the spring of 2025 which is when the Big 12 grant of rights expire.
Is this just a play to force the NCAA to expand the Playoff, or is this actually serious?
James: This is where I put my tin hat back on. I propose that this is a ploy not by the G5 programs, but rather, the P5 programs, to expand the Playoff.
Hear me out: the powers-that-be have always wanted an eight-team playoff. More money for more teams, more advertising revenue, etc. The problem has been how to make it happen. They can’t just announce that it will expand with no aplomb. Sports are the longest-running reality show, after all.
You plant the story that the lesser-thans, who you have to begrudgingly include for legal reasons, want their own Playoff, spark the conversation, gauge the reaction and then swoop in with “the solution,” which doubles the size of the playoff and ensures a G5 spot (maybe), and yay everyone is happy to have a compromise! But it’s been the plan all along. Its called playing yourself.
Tin hat off.
Cyrus: I think it speaks volumes that the known voices that were in favor were from the MAC because they have no shot at entering the playoff whereas the known voices against it were from the AAC, as they seem to be much closer than any other G5 conference to breaking in.
I still believe this was manufactured by ESPN. Aside from the first year where there was a ton of controversy surrounding the four best teams, the four-team playoff has delivered in giving the four best teams free of controversy.
Talks being centered around expanding the playoff have been on the basis of entertainment value and money and not whether the current format has done a poor job in choosing the four best teams.
Jeremy: This is a ploy for attention, plain and simple. It is already clear that the Power Five schools get the vast majority of the coverage, and tossing out this idea is a way to get the news cycle back to the G5 teams. I still think this is not going to happen as it makes the G5 seem even more insignificant to the power five leagues than they already are.
Also, the G5 literally has no leverage to make this type of power move and get something out of it. Even if they were to agree to not play P5’s anymore that would actually create better matchups if the P5 teams only play each other. However, that will not happen because of the paydays that come with playing a power conference team, and that income helps fund entire athletic departments for the teams of the G5.
Even if somehow every G5 school were to agree and implement a playoff amongst themselves the P5 schools would not care. To be honest, the power five leagues don’t really need the current group of five teams and could tell those in favor of a G5 playoff to go spit into the wind and go ahead with that plan and say welcome to becoming an FCS program.
Is an eight-team Playoff a good idea with the inclusion of a G5 school and perhaps more importantly, good enough to keep the P5 and G5 together in the FBS as we know it?
James: The way money is distributed will speak to a more positive attitude when it comes to G5 inclusion in this entire scheme. The school that hosts the Playoff participant could gain $4 million and the G5 each share a pool of $83 million, which roughly translates to $16,600,000 per conference. A conference averages 12-14 teams, so you’re looking at $1,185,714-1,383,333 per team. The Sun Belt’s conference members, which falls to 10 teams in 2018, could make $1.66 million each. Each school gets an additional $300k bonus for a bowl in the contract.
It would certainly give incentive for G5 teams to stay in this system, even if it meant kind of acquiescing to what the powers-that-be wanted, which would be 1) more money and 2) more of its teams. It’s placation at its finest. A carrot on a stick.
It’ll be a patchwork FBS, but it’ll still stay together. If it’ll be good? I’m not really sure.
Cyrus: I think so. G5 just wants a shot at the blue-bloods just like how the NCAA Tournament does it but wants their opportunity with all the chips on the table rather than a glorified exhibition (and also some of that money mentioned above). P5 just wants more money. Everybody wins.
Jeremy: It is a better idea with eight teams and one from the Group of Five and we all know that the G5 team will always be an eight seed and sometimes a seven seed. A seat at the table is better than no seat, and even if it is near the bathroom of that nice five-star restaurant because getting in is the first step.
Right now, there is a good amount of interest in what G5 team was going to earn the spot in the Cotton Bowl. Part of that was if Western Michigan would be undefeated, if Boise State could remain ahead with two losses and get into the Mountain West or if Navy would throw a wrench into things if they won the AAC and we had to wait until they played Army.
That would amplify coverage for who would get into the playoff which includes just one from the G5 and assuming the money is on par with other schools that make the playoff then this is a move in the right direction. I think we can all agree that four teams is not exactly enough to determine a true national champion.
Also, adding a G5 team to the playoff would remove the stigma that a Power Five team was not motivated if they lost to G5 team because there is actually something on the line.
Any other points or observations you would like to make?
James: I can’t help but think a P5/G5 split on this issue would indicate the collapse of the American collegiate football pyramid long-term. The Big Ten has already gotten rid of FCS matchups, which puts FCS programs in a bad spot potentially, especially if other P5 programs jump on board with that. A move to a G5 Playoff would ultimately have to mean a split between both levels eventually (eventually, if not initially) and that could give those P5 conferences incentive to just stop scheduling G5 teams altogether.
That’s my major concern more than the playoff system. FCS and G5 teams need games with the P5 to help pay for their entire athletic departments and to help craft a message for recruits that they can play on the same level as the blue-blood programs. That disappears with a move like this. And yes, national prestige does affect more than sports; I’ve known people that go to colleges at a certain school just because the school’s athletic teams were highly-touted. It matters.
Would some people like a split? Sure. The diehards will, certainly. But, more casual sports fans? Nope. It could prove to make such programs entirely irrelevant.
Cyrus: James I can tell you without a doubt that I chose to go to FAU because they were a D1 school. That prestige matters. If FAU was in the Atlantic Sun with FGCU, I would have gone to USF or Oregon.
I see a lot of G5 fans who just want a spot in the playoff. The only way that happens is in an eight-team playoff. I’m of the opinion that these matchups would be equivalent to the 1-16 game in the NCAA Tournament. I love my G5 brethren, but I think we need to let go of the idea that a national championship will ever be on the table for us.
Splitting up the P5/G5 dynamic because of access to the Playoff is not a hill worth dying on when the consequences could be dire for a majority of schools in the G5. The thought of an eight-team playoff reminds me of Mark Cuban’s quote when he said “pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered” in regards to the NFL and greed.
Alas, an eight-team playoff seems inevitable and hopefully it does include a guarantee entry for a G5 school. I don’t want to see that happen under the current structure with the NCAA running the show and feel that that the G5 must hope the P5 breaks away from the NCAA and install a commissioner (Hi Nick Saban) in order to prosper in the future.
With a commissioner in place there can be transparency across the board as far as access to the playoff, scheduling, and more importantly as we head into a future in which the sport is at a crossroads, safety and benefits towards college football players.
Jeremy: While I like thinking outside of the box on this but ultimately a playoff split like this is dumb and I agree with James that a playoff for the G5 would eventually lead to a split in creating a new form of Division I football. I don’t think it would create a collapse, or form a new division zero or something, because there are other sports under the D1 banner like the NCAA basketball tournament, and that makes bank so that will not be messed with. So, it would not impact other sports one bit.
If the G5 wants attention then they need to stop trying to beg to play the eighth team from a P5 league in a bowl game. Who cares if a 10-2 American team plays a 6-6 ACC team. I get the appeal of playing a P5 school but the buzz around Houston and San Diego State was fairly sizable so these leagues need to attempt to have champ vs. champ play, or have the better teams play each other. For me, a game like Navy vs. La. Tech is a good example of two better teams from a league facing off against each other.
What really needs to happen is to expand the playoff to at a minimum of eight teams with the basic formula of the five P5 champs getting in, one from the G5 and then two at-larges. Sixteen teams with 10 league champs and six at-large is what I REALLY want to happen and then you place the first two rounds on campus and then go to bowl games after that, but that is so far down the road. There is still plenty to play for with home field on the line, but ultimately that is not going to happen. Perhaps a 12-team NFL-style playoff could happen down the road with a pair of auto bids from the G5.
Those saying extra games are an issue with missing school or wear and tear, and that is hogwash. Look at Texas high school football where the championship game had each team playing 16 games, so I never thought of adding a few more games as this huge roadblock.
Just give the G5 teams a chance, that is all we want. TCU winning the Rose Bowl, Utah steamrolling Alabama or Boise State in the year they lost to Nevada all would have been a great matchup in a playoff against any team. Imaging the hype for a playoff if a non-power team wins a game, heck two, the buzz would be about 100-fold more than when George Mason made its amazing run to the Final Four back in 2006.
Many thanks to Cyrus Smith and Jeremy Mauss for their contributions to this round table. They can be followed at @CoolKidCyrus and @JeremyMauss, respectively.
Cyrus helps run Underdog Dynasty, which covers American, C-USA, Sun Belt, independent and FCS sports for SB Nation. They can be followed on Twitter @UnderdogDynasty.
Jeremy is the site manager at Mountain West Connection, which covers Mountain West sports for SB Nation. They can be followed on Twitter @MWCConnection.